by John Patishnock
IU Final Four News Bureau
Final scoreboard reading aside, Butler University made history Monday night.
And their hometown fans were watching.
While the Butler Bulldogs were competing for college basketball’s top prize at Lucas Oil Stadium, thousands of their fans were less than six miles away, watching every cut and hearing every sneaker squeak on eight jumbotron-sized screens inside Hinkle Fieldhouse,
Starting more than two hours before tip-off, a nonstop stream of exuberant fans entered Butler’s home arena. They entered a little soggy from the evening rain, but the moisture would be shaken off from the vibrant cheering that would shortly ensue.
Kids danced, students cheered, parents sang, all amid a gray-haired gentleman who took a picture of a youngster wearing two Butler Blue and white pom-poms as ears.
And this only describes the people who made up the court-length, long line of people waiting to have their faces painted an hour before the game even started.
Nestled within a quaint neighborhood, Hinkle’s cozy structure could cause some people to be reminded of their high school days. But on this night the gym engendered a mix between a rock concert and a New Year’s Eve celebration.
While the crowd was euphoric throughout most of the national championship game, nobody seemed particularly surprised that it included their Bulldogs.
There was no sense of astonishment, no talk of moral victories.
Instead, there existed a sense of pride among the crowd, a belief that now the whole nation would know what they already did — that their kids can play with anybody in the country.
When the ball was thrown in the air, it didn’t just signal the start of the game, but also the unveiling of a national secret that’s been hidden in America’s Heartland.
The crowd leapt to the rafters and roared with approval when Matt Howard’s free throw gave Butler a one-point lead 16 seconds into the game. When Shelvin Mack hit a 3-pointer a few minutes later, this same routine almost caused the bleachers to crack.
I don’t know who was contracted to build the seats at Hinkle, but Butler definitely got its moneys worth.
Every dribble was magnified, every shot seemed to hang a little longer in the air, and every rebound seemed within reach if only someone sitting in the stands would reach out for it.
When Butler took a one-point lead with over 12 minutes left in the first half, it would commence a back-and-forth battle between the Bulldogs and Blue Devils, and the Hinkle crowd was as just as much a part of it as someone sitting court side at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Every Bulldog basket was their basket. Every Duke turnover was their turnover.
They weren’t just watching. They were participating, yelling out screens and pleading for calls from the referees.
Butler’s bench was extraordinarily long on this night, stretching all the way back to Hinkle, and including every Bulldog in attendance.
When the Bulldogs left the court at halftime, the fans in Hinkle mimicked the act, leaving the bleachers.
When both Bulldog squads returned for the second half, a national championship was as close as it’s ever been for Butler University.
The Bulldog players strained throughout the second half.
So did their fans.
The fans in attendance at Hinkle didn’t just watch a basketball game tonight. They went through an experience that will be told and retold for generations to come.
The Night At Hinkle will become part of Butler lore, and there will be many versions, one for each person who walked through the doors on this night.
Though Butler came up two points short tonight, one shouldn’t doubt that some variation of The Night At Hinkle will end with Gordon Hayword’s half-court lob banking in, giving Butler its first national title, and causing a wide-eyed Hoosier to think a little more fondly of the storyteller.
The night began with the crowd singing along to Journey’s fan favorite, “Don’t Stop Believing.”
And they never did.
The rendition was part of a night that nobody at Hinkle will ever forget.
A team of Indiana University journalists is reporting for the Final Four Student News Bureau, a project between IU’s National Sports Journalism Center and the NCAA at the men’s tournament in Indianapolis.